Kim Dickey's All Is Leaf creates a spectacular winter garden at Rule

There are endless affinities that connect gardening to ceramics, the most obvious of which is that both start with digging in the ground. The creation of vessels from clay and the cultivation of plants each came very early in the development of civilization, and both were necessary pre-conditions for it. And then there's the flowerpot, which, like clay soils, provides a nexus for the two otherwise distinct activities.

This preamble is a lead-up to Kim Dickey: All Is Leaf at Rule Gallery, in which ceramics and other materials have been employed to convey a formal garden through a spectacular installation. Entering the gallery, visitors need to work their way through a series of interconnecting spaces that have been defined by both the gallery's walls and the freestanding wall fragments Dickey has made. It's sort of like a loosely configured maze. The wall fragments are covered with thousands of tiny ceramic elements glazed green. Making their way through, viewers will come upon individual representational sculptures that are white. Together, these create an overwhelming atmosphere that brings to mind a formal garden with trimmed boxwood hedges defining its shapes and with statuary accenting its walks. "The vision I had," says Dickey, "was to consider the theatrical role of engaging the viewer in the experience." And those who go through the piece really do function, to some extent, as actors on a set.

Dickey's conjoined interests in gardening and ceramics go back to her childhood in North Salem, New York, where her mother was a serious gardener. "She taught me how to understand the language of the garden," Dickey says. "I'm so happy when I have my hands in the dirt. It's something I've always loved." And she came to ceramics — which also involves putting her hands in the dirt — at a young age as well, making her first pot, a Greek-inspired amphora, when she was twelve. "My parents still have it," Dickey says with a laugh. And by the time she was in high school, Dickey had already figured out what she wanted to do with her life. "I knew I wanted to be an artist, and I knew the kind of artist I wanted to be. Sometimes you get an idea early in life that just clicks, like a good marriage. I know it's corny to say, but I still have a love affair with the medium."

Dickey went on to have a distinguished academic career, earning a BFA at the Rhode Island School of Design and an MFA at the State University of New York at Alfred, a national center for ceramics. In 1988, she moved to New York City, and credits the next decade there as being the most important part of her art education. It was there that she was picked up by the now-gone Garth Clark Gallery, the premier ceramics gallery in the country at the time, and became a part of the early Williamsburg art scene in the '90s. In 1999, Dickey moved to our state to teach ceramics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she's been ever since. 

All Is Leaf is the latest installment of a series of ceramic works about gardens that Dickey has been doing for the past ten years. The idea came to her in 2001, when she was in Italy for a few months. "I was working on terra cotta in Tuscany," she says, "and I was being exposed to certain decorative traditions and was surrounded by Italian Renaissance gardens — or the remnants of them — and I thought, what if you made something like a bush the same size as it is? Does it then turn from a decorative object into a sculpture? Can the decorative be monumental?"

Dickey's best-known musings about the nature of clay sculpture are the ceramic bushes in "Museum as Theater as Garden," on permanent display at MCA Denver. The six geometrically shaped pieces, done in 2007, recall trimmed bushes and line the wide sill of the windows that overlook the rooftop garden. Some of them show the use of the conventionalized quatrefoil shape that is employed on all of the space-defining architectonic pieces in All Is Leaf. The quatrefoil, and the color she uses — a soft dark green with many variations — suggests a leaf, but Dickey has designed it as an abstraction of a leaf and not with any particular leaf in mind.

Dickey's last solo at Rule, in 2007, was also an installation meant to be read as a garden; Cold Pastoral reconfigured the gallery space as a long alee, the length of which was visually extended by the installation of mirrors at the back, seeming to double the size of the space. With All Is Leaf, Dickey has taken the opposite tack, creating tightly confined spaces that seem to bleed away into nothingness at the end. In both cases, she infused the space with an all-enveloping quality; it's important to realize that Dickey worked with Rule's floor plan and that All Is Leaf was specifically conceived for the gallery.

In the initial space, there is a low rectilinear platform that's been completely covered by rigidly straight rows of the quatrefoil leaves, which makes it read as a clipped boxwood. Dickey has fabricated the aluminum sheets that form the basis of this platform and of all the other rectilinear forms here. The quatrefoils are attached to the aluminum sheets using silicon and rubber grommets. This impression of being in the presence of trimmed bushes is underscored by the freestanding wall, with half of an arched doorway on one end, that looks like a hedge.

The title All Is Leaf is taken from a quote by Goethe, who used the phrase to sum up his exhaustive study of botany. Dickey was taken by the romantic idea that everything can be reduced to a single idea — in this case, conveying the ambience of a garden inside a building.

On the floor near the quatrefoil-covered freestanding wall is "Wolfgang's Lion," which takes the form of a seated lion created from leaves. It's been glazed white and has a memento mori quality to it for Dickey. According to the artist, the idea of carrying out a figurative element with foliate ornament is part of the "Green Man" tradition that dates back to antiquity. As viewers zigzag to the back, various hard-edged hedge forms are arranged in relation to other representational sculptures of animals — "Bird of Prey (Kite)" and "The Departure (Rabbit)" — and plants. Remarkably, the animals, much more than the plants, have a naturalistic feel to them even though they are completely covered with press-molded leaves of Dickey's own design.

Toward the end of the show, things seem to thin out, with lower forms and fewer elements. This disappearing feature was inspired by those ruined gardens Dickey saw in Italy that are slowly dissolving into the surrounding landscape.

For Dickey, each subsequent iteration of the garden theme has been built on the one that came before, and it turns out that All Is Leaf is itself a stepping stone to the next piece. Using the same ideas, Dickey will unveil a twenty-foot-long wall that will be covered with the quatrefoils as part of Marvelous Mud, a clay extravaganza that will be on view at the Denver Art Museum in June. One side of Dickey's wall will read as a hedge, like the pieces in All Is Leaf, because it will be covered by the quatrefoils glazed in her characteristic green. But on the other side, there will be a composite image inspired by the mille flore background of the "Unicorn" tapestry. This side of the wall will also be carried out with the quatrefoils, but they will have been glazed in different colors to convey the effect of a field of flowers.

In addition to being a knockout show, All Is Leaf is the last exhibit the handsome Rule gallery will present in its current location. In March, Rule will relocate to 3340 Walnut Street in RiNo, right next to Ice Cube Gallery.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia